There are 36 at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. Assuming one of the teams listed as a lock below wins each conference tournament, and all the teams assigned should-be-in status indeed make it, that would leave seven remaining spots for bubble teams. With 17 teams from the conferences likely to get multiple bids deemed in the mix this week, that doesn't leave them a big margin for error.
Whether or not the exact number of available spots for bubble teams is seven doesn't really matter. A team like Wichita State or Gonzaga could lose in its conference tournament, bursting one team's bubble. One of the teams that currently should be in could fall apart, freeing up another line in the bracket. The point is the pool of bids that are up for grabs is already shallow, and it's easier to get excluded than to get included. That's why what LSU and Oregon did last week, the former positive and the latter negative, could be signs of their respective tournament fates.
It has been the best year in a while in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers were still looking for a signature win to help them stamp their first ticket to the dance since 2009. The win over No. 18 Kentucky did just that for them. While it's their lone victory against a team in the top 50 in RPI, they're now 6-4 against the top 100, and lost by just two at Massachusetts and seven against Memphis on a neutral court.
On the other side, Oregon continues to trend in the wrong direction. The Ducks are 3-6 in the Pac-12 and let a potential win at home against UCLA last week slip away after they used a 14-0 run to take a three-point lead with just more than a minute left in the game. That would have given the Ducks their first win over a team in the top 20 in RPI. Instead, their lone win against a team in the top-50 remains a home victory over BYU, a team unlikely to make the tournament if it doesn't earn the automatic bid from the West Coast Conference. Oregon still has three more opportunities to get a statement win, though two of those come against Arizona, and the third, their rematch with UCLA, is on the road against a team unlikely to be seeded higher than fifth or sixth in the tournament. Unlike LSU, Oregon has yet to prove it can beat a team that will matter in March. That could end up consigning the Ducks to the NIT.
Locks: Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh
Syracuse and Duke played the best game of the season on Saturday, with the Orange emerging victorious, 91-89, in overtime. Still, the Blue Devils did their tournament standing a favor by hanging with the Orange in the Carrier Dome. Meanwhile, Virginia knocked Pitt down a rung, and moved into second place in the conference, by beating the Panthers on the road on Sunday. The Cavaliers don't get a shot at Syracuse until March 1.
SHOULD BE IN
Florida State (13-8, RPI: 39, SOS: 16) -- The Seminoles had a damaging week with losses to N.C. State and Clemson, two teams outside the top 50 in RPI. While they can still trade off of wins over Massachusetts and VCU, they need to pick up a few more wins in the ACC to buttress their case for the tournament. They'll have a chance for one of those this week when they travel to Maryland.
IN THE MIX
North Carolina (14-7, RPI: 42, SOS: 19) -- The Tar Heels have won three straight, and while none moves the needle hugely, they did beat Clemson by 19 and N.C. State by 14. They need to take care of business against Maryland and Notre Dame this week. Next week brings Duke and Pittsburgh to Chapel Hill.
North Carolina State (14-8, RPI: 65, SOS: 37) -- Thanks to a nice win over Florida State that capped a three-game win streak, the Wolfpack were one of the first four out in this week's Bracket Watch. KenPom has them all the way down at No. 86, and their only other win over a team in the top 50 in RPI was at Tennessee. They have three more opportunities in the regular season to impress the selection committee, beginning on February 15 at Syracuse.
Clemson (14-6, RPI: 73, SOS: 129) -- Their win over Duke gets better and better by the week, with the Blue Devils playing their best basketball of the season. Still, the Tigers are going to be hurt by their weak non-conference schedule. The mirror image of N.C. State in the ratings systems, KenPom loves the Tigers, ranking them No. 46 (nearly 30 spots better than their RPI). While it will be a tall order for them to win at Syracuse on Sunday, a strong showing could impress the committee.
Maryland (13-9, RPI: 77, SOS: 60) -- The Terrapins beat bottom-feeders Miami and Virginia Tech last week, but their spot in the "in the mix" section remains tenuous. That's what happens when you're 1-6 against top-50 RPI teams and 2-8 against the top 100. This could be a big week for them, however. They hit the road to take on North Carolina on Tuesday, then host Florida State on Saturday.
American Athletic Conference
Locks: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Connecticut
Cincinnati took control of the AAC -- and put itself on the map nationally -- with a win at Louisville last week. The Bearcats now own a two-and-a-half game lead over the Cardinals and Tigers, which will almost certainly result in them avoiding those two teams in the conference tournament until a matchup with one of them in a potential championship game. Louisville still doesn't have a better win than at Connecticut this year, while Memphis' best win -- Oklahoma State on a neutral court -- doesn't look nearly as impressive as it once did. The Huskies graduated to lock status by continuing to beat the teams they should. Wins over Florida and at Memphis should help keep their tournament status relatively safe.
IN THE MIX
SMU (17-5, RPI: 48, SOS: 117) -- Thanks to a defense that ranks 21st in adjusted efficiency, the Mustangs are 28th overall on KenPom. Despite that, their tourney hopes took a huge hit when they lost at South Florida last week. It may have been on the road, but you can't lose to teams that are 144th in RPI when you're on the bubble. That they bounced back with a win over Memphis says a lot about the squad Larry Brown has in Dallas. They'll get a chance for a statement win with Cincinnati coming to town on Saturday.
Locks: Saint Louis, Massachusetts
The Billikens still have not lost in the conference, though they have yet to play Massachusetts, VCU or George Washington. We won't be able to get a bead on where they'll be seeded until they play the contenders. Massachusetts, meanwhile, has to be giving the committee qualms after losing at St. Bonaventure and Saint Joe's last week. At 4-3 in the A-10, the Minutemen are understandably sliding down the brackets, but their spot still is not in jeopardy.
SHOULD BE IN
VCU (18-4, RPI: 28, SOS: 83) -- The Rams are 6-1 in the conference, with their lone loss coming at George Washington. Of course, they've yet to play Saint Louis or Massachusetts. But the committee will love all their road wins. Shaka Smart's bunch has won at Virginia, Belmont, Dayton and LaSalle. Virginia is 15th in RPI, and the other three are all in the top 75.
George Washington (17-4, RPI: 30, SOS: 91) -- The Colonials stumbled at Dayton last week after pounding La Salle at home. Where the Rams have had plenty of success on the road, Mike Lonergan's squad could still show the committee something by getting a few wins outside of D.C. Their best road win was at St. Bonaventure, while they've lost to all other top-100 RPI teams they've played away from home. They should coast against Duquesne and Fordham this week before heading to Richmond to take on the Rams on February 12.
IN THE MIX
Richmond (14-8, RPI: 49, SOS: 32) -- If the Spiders end up missing the tournament, they may mark last week as their death knell. They blew big opportunities at Saint Louis and VCU. They do not have any other chances for impressive road wins and are 1-5 against teams in the top 50 in RPI. They should be able to get back on track in short order, as their next three games are against St. Bonaventure, Duquesne and Fordham.
Dayton (14-8, RPI: 64, SOS: 49) -- The Flyers' home win over George Washington ended a five-game losing streak and doubled as their best win since beating California on a neutral court way back when you were enjoying your Thanksgiving turkey. They hit the road for games with George Mason and St. Bonaventure, the latter of which could boost their ratings if they emerge victorious.
Locks: Creighton, Villanova
Thanks to these two, the Big East is one of only two conferences to have at least two teams in the top 10 both in RPI and on KenPom (the ACC is the other). Their return game in Philadelphia on February 16 will likely determine the conference's regular season champion.
SHOULD BE IN
Providence (16-6, RPI: 36, SOS: 53) -- Since losing three straight games in late December/early January, the Friars have won six of their last seven, including victories over Creighton and Xavier. That makes them 2-3 against top-50 RPI teams and 7-5 against the top 100. If they can pull off the sweep of Xavier in Cincinnati on Saturday, they will be positioned quite well going into the second half of the conference season.
Xavier (15-7, RPI: 45, SOS: 42) -- The committee could easily overlook a loss at Providence, but dropping a game to Seton Hall -- ranked 112th in RPI -- at home is going to hurt the Musketeers. Not enough to keep them out of the tournament, but enough to justify knocking them down a couple of seeds. Their current slide, which stretched to three at the hands of Villanova Monday, could easily extend to four this week with their rematch against the Friars looming.
Locks: Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Oklahoma State
Check out this wheel of parity in the Big 12. Iowa State beat Oklahoma, who beat Oklahoma State, who beat Texas, who beat Kansas, who beat Iowa State. While any of these teams could beat any other on a given night, a few tiers are starting to emerge. The first includes the Jayhawks and only the Jayhawks, who will be no worse than a 2-seed in the tournament. Next comes a tier with the Longhorns, Sooners and Cyclones, who have all looked like the conference's second-best team at a point this season. Finally, and surprisingly, the third tier consists solely of the Cowboys, who have lost four of their last five, including Monday's triple-overtime heartbreaker against Iowa State, and just dismissed freshman guard Stevie Clark after he was arrested for the second time in 2014.
SHOULD BE IN
Kansas State (15-7, RPI: 41, SOS: 29) -- The Wildcats are nearly a lock for the tournament. They boast wins over Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, George Washington and Gonzaga, and nearly beat Texas and Iowa State on the road. It's still just a tad early to call them a lock, but it's hard to craft a realistic scenario in which they fall out of the tournament picture. They play just once this week, hosting the Longhorns on Saturday.
IN THE MIX
Baylor (14-7, RPI: 55, SOS: 11) -- Few power conference teams needed an impressive win more than the Bears, so Scott Drew had to be happy that his squad left Stillwater with a 76-70 win over Oklahoma State over the weekend. That stopped a five-game losing streak in which the Bears fell to Texas Tech and West Virginia. Wins over Kentucky and a full-strength Colorado squad still have Baylor on the right side of the bubble, but things could come undone, starting as early as this week. They host Kansas on Tuesday then head to Norman to take on the Sooners on Saturday.
Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Like the Big 12, the Big Ten is starting to see separate into tiers. The two teams in the state of Michigan reside at the top, and it remains the belief of this Bubble Watcher that the Spartans are the best team in the country when fully healthy. Iowa is all alone in tier No. 2. The Hawkeyes are 0-2 against Michigan and Michigan State, and they lost to the latter at home while it was without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Next comes Ohio State, Wisconsin and, though they are not yet a lock, Minnesota, all teams with fatal flaws that will likely keep them from advancing beyond the Sweet 16.
SHOULD BE IN
Minnesota (15-7, RPI: 37, SOS: 6) -- The Buckeyes and Badgers are not doing the Gophers any favors. Richard Pitino's crew no doubt expected to hang its hat on wins over those two teams, which looked like real players in the conference when they lost to Minnesota. Both have fallen apart since and are clearly running behind the true Big Ten powers. Still, the Gophers are 4-4 against teams in the top 50 in RPI, though they just suffered through a rough week in which they lost to Nebraska and Northwestern.
IN THE MIX
Indiana (14-8, RPI: 67, SOS: 54) -- Just when you think they're dead, the Hoosiers give you reason to pay attention again. Desperate for a win in mid-January, they knocked off then-No. 3 Wisconsin at home. After losing three of their last four, they gave Michigan its first conference loss on Sunday. They still have four losses to teams ranked 65th or worse in RPI, so it's not like the wins over the Badgers and Wolverines alone will get them in. But now we have to continue to take them seriously. The committee would really take notice if they can win at Minnesota on Saturday.
Locks: Arizona, UCLA
Arizona can get over losing to California on Saturday. What it might not be able to, however, is losing Brandon Ashley for the rest of the year due to a foot injury. Ashley had been the team's third-leading scorer and rebounder, dropping in 11.5 points and pulling down 5.8 boards per game. He gave Sean Miller 28 minutes a night and was second on the team in effective field goal percentage, thanks to knocking down 37.9 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. The Bruins can't be happy about losing at Oregon State, but they're still 5-2 against teams in the top 50 in RPI.
SHOULD BE IN
Colorado (16-6, RPI: 26, SOS: 12) -- It continues to be a tale of two seasons for the Buffaloes, with the turning point coming the night Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL. They got back in the win column last week, though it was with a lackluster performance against Utah. That win over Kansas is always going to look great, but this team could still unravel with a few losses to the also-rans in the conference. They must beat Washington State and Washington at home this week.
California (15-7, RPI: 43, SOS: 43) -- The Golden Bears can't just coast the rest of the way after beating Arizona, but if they seriously end up on the bubble, that could be a nice tiebreaker. That it stanched the bleeding after a three-game losing streak can only make them feel better heading into this week's game with Stanford. The Bears are 6-5 against top-100 RPI teams.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (15-6, RPI: 46, SOS: 48) -- For the first time this season, Oregon was out of the picture in Bracket Watch. That will happen when you go 3-6 in your first nine conference games, including losses to Oregon State and Washington. After rallying back to take a late lead over UCLA, the Ducks fell in what could have been a statement victory for them. Instead, they face a tough week with a trip through the state of Arizona this week. It won't be enough for them just to knock off the teams beneath them in the conference. They're going to have to beat Arizona or UCLA to get in the dance.
Arizona State (16-6, RPI: 47, SOS: 72) -- The Sun Devils couldn't have known that their win at California last Wednesday would look so much better by the weekend, but that's exactly what happened when the Golden Bears gave Arizona its first loss of the season. ASU will have every chance to prove it belongs in the tournament, as each of their nine remaining regular season games is against a team in the RPI top 100. They kick that off by hosting the state of Oregon, both the Beavers and Ducks, in Tempe this week.
Stanford (14-7, RPI: 50, SOS: 27) -- The Cardinal had about as good as a 1-1 week as a team can have, nearly beating Arizona before knocking off fellow bubble squad Arizona State. They're now 3-6 against teams in the top 45 in RPI and have chances to impress the committee on the road this week at California and Washington.
Washington (13-9, RPI: 80, SOS: 62) -- Realistically, the Huskies are headed to the NIT unless they can win the conference tournament. However, they're 3-5 against teams in the top 50 in RPI and still have games remaining at Colorado and Oregon, and home against Stanford, California and UCLA. Say they win the Colorado game and two of those home games. Could that get them in? It's certainly possible, and plausible enough to warrant listing them here.
Locks: Florida, Kentucky
It was a great week for the Gators, who elevated to a No. 1 seed in the Bracket Watch and got Chris Walker back. With Walker in uniform this week, Billy Donovan will have another big man to add into his rotation. Kentucky followed a disappointing loss at LSU with a nice win at Missouri, but the Wildcats now have three losses to teams outside the top 50 in RPI. That's the same as their number of wins over teams inside the top 50, the best of which was at home against Louisville. These two teams will play for the first time this year on Feb. 15 in Lexington.
SHOULD BE IN
Tennessee (14-7, RPI: 40, SOS: 14) -- The Volunteers did exactly what they needed to do last week, beating Ole Miss and Alabama. The home loss to Texas A&M will always be a blemish, but they can point to wins against Xavier on a neutral court, Virginia and at LSU as proof that they can stack up against tournament teams. They cannot afford to slip up against Vanderbilt or South Carolina this week.
IN THE MIX
LSU (14-6, RPI: 52, SOS: 51) -- The Tigers got the statement win they so desperately needed by beating Kentucky last week, then followed up that main course with a dessert victory over Arkansas. They have two bad losses on the resume, but they're also now 6-4 against teams in the top 100 in RPI. They go on the road for three of their next four games, but these are contests they should win if they are the same team that upended Kentucky and Missouri. They head to Athens to play Georgia this week, then return home for a game with Auburn.
Missouri (16-5, RPI: 53, SOS: 85) -- Had the Tigers been able to knock off Kentucky on Saturday, they'd likely find themselves in the section above this one. That would have made them 2-0 against teams in the top 20 in RPI, with the other win coming against UCLA. Instead, they're still a team that has proven it can hang with the middle of the pack, but has also faltered against Illinois, Vanderbilt and Georgia. This is an important week for them with road games against Florida and Ole Miss.
Ole Miss (15-6, RPI: 57, SOS: 79) -- Don't be fooled by the Rebels' 6-2 conference record. Their best win is over LSU at home and they lost to Mississippi State, who is 155th in RPI. They still do not have a win against a team in the top 50 in RPI, but they'll get a chance to change that this week when they visit Kentucky. They also host Missouri, who is just outside the top 50, on Saturday.
Arkansas (13-8, RPI: 93, SOS: 76) -- Their RPI may be ugly, but the Razorbacks own three wins over teams in the top 50 in RPI, including one over Kentucky and another against Minnesota on a neutral court. Until they fall apart, and that is not what happens when a teams loses to Missouri and LSU in the same week, they'll be part of the bubble picture. They must, however, get right against Alabama and Vanderbilt this week.
Locks: Wichita State
The Shockers continue to roll through the Valley, beating Loyala (Ill.) by 12 and Evansville by 14 last week. They'll finally get that test we've all been waiting for when they visit Indiana State on Wednesday.
IN THE MIX
Indiana State (17-5, RPI: 56, SOS: 150) -- This is the week the Sycamores have had circled on their calendar all season. Sure, Wichita State waxed them by 20 points in Kansas, but this game is in Terre Haute where they haven't lost all season. If they are going to have any chance to earn an at-large bid, they absolutely have to win this game. No word as to whether or not Larry Bird will be in attendance.
Locks: San Diego State
KenPom hates the Aztecs, at least relatively, thanks to their No. 100 ranking in adjusted offensive efficiency. They let Colorado State hang before pulling away late, and that came on the heels of a five-point victory over Utah State, a team that ranks 128th in RPI. While they're going to be highly seeded in the tournament, it would be encouraging to see them handle Boise State on the road with ease on Wednesday.
SHOULD BE IN
New Mexico (17-4, RPI: 27, SOS: 64) -- The Lobos have ripped off five straight wins in the Mountain West, have a great win over Cincinnati that keeps on getting better, and are 5-4 against teams in the top 100 in RPI. It's not going to be the world's most impressive resume at any point this season, but it will almost certainly be enough to get into the tournament. They play just once this week, hosting Wyoming on Wednesday.
IN THE MIX
Boise State (15-7, RPI: 61, SOS: 73) -- It's hard to pinpoint the most damaging aspect of Boise State's loss to UNLV. Is it that UNLV is 105th in RPI, or the fact that a win against UNLV would have been the Broncos' best of the season? No matter your answer, this team can only earn an at-large bid by winning its two most important games the rest of the season. The first of those is on Wednesday, when San Diego State comes calling. The Broncos lost by just three points to the Aztecs in San Diego early last month.
The ratings systems love the Zags, who are 21st in RPI and 26th at KenPom. That doesn't change the fact that it's hard to get behind a team that has just one against a top-50 RPI squad (Brigham Young) and a loss to a team outside the RPI top 150 (Portland, 166). They could survive a loss in the conference tournament with their current resume, but that might not be the case if they end up losing to BYU on February 20 and Saint Mary's on March 1, both of which are on the road. They do have a chance for a statement win on Saturday when they go out of the conference to take on Memphis in Tennessee.
IN THE MIX
BYU (15-9, RPI: 44, SOS: 23) -- The Cougars officially put themselves ahead of Saint Mary's in the WCC pecking order by knocking off the Gaels by 13 at home on Saturday. They can't afford to drop any of their next four games before they host Gonzaga if they are to impress the committee enough to earn an at-large bid. That starts with home games against Santa Clara and San Francisco, a below-the-radar decent team with an RPI of 91, this week.
Saint Mary's (16-7, RPI: 59, SOS: 74) -- The Gaels have six wins over teams in the top 100 in RPI, but none of those were against a top-50 team. Even if they win their return dates with Gonzaga and BYU at home, they probably won't have enough to earn an at-large bid. This is a team that needs to win its conference tournament to stay away from the NIT.
Best of the rest
Toledo (18-3, RPI: 32, SOS: 128) -- The Golden Flashes have the best RPI of any team in a likely one-bid conference, and also rank ahead of Connecticut, Louisville, Minnesota, Florida State and North Carolina. They don't have a win against a team in the top 100 in RPI, however, so they probably could not survive a loss in the MAC tournament. Ohio and Akron are their two strongest challengers in the conference.
Southern Miss (19-3, RPI: 34, SOS: 144) -- The Golden Eagles are tied for first with UTEP in Conference USA at 6-1. The two teams play just once in the regular season, and it's at El Paso, but it's the Golden Eagles who are seen as the odds-on-favorite to win the conference. A lot of that has to do with a defense that ranks 37th in adjusted efficiency on KenPom, higher than Kansas, Memphis and Providence.
Harvard (17-3, RPI: 38, SOS: 163) -- The Crimson remained undefeated in the Ivy League last week with wins over Princeton and Penn. They also learned that they would be without center Kenyatta Smith for the rest of the season because of a broken bone in his left foot, but he had only played one game this year. While they would have loved to have him back, they're not losing a guy who was a big part of what they have accomplished in 2013-14. They play Brown and Yale, both of whom are just one game behind them in the Ivy standings, this week.
Mercer (18-6, RPI: 58, SOS: 167) -- Led by senior guard Langston Hall, the Bears are 9-2 and in first place of the Atlantic Sun Conference. They tested themselves in the non-conference, beating Ole Miss on the road and Seton Hall at home, and losing by three points at Texas and 14 at Oklahoma. They rank 83rd on KenPom, three slots ahead of N.C. State.
UW-Green Bay (18-7, RPI: 60, SOS: 147) -- The Phoenix suffered their first loss in the Horizon League, falling at Valparaiso last week. They still have a comfortable two-game lead in the conference and could actually build a the tiniest sliver of a case for an at-large bid, thanks to a win over Virginia and close losses to Wisconsin and Harvard. Get to know them a little better with Brian Hamilton's recent feature on leading scorers, and odd couple, Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown.
Stephen F. Austin (20-2, RPI: 92, SOS: 340) -- Their resume isn't going to look great as they've only played one team -- Texas -- inside the top 100 in RPI, but KenPom loves the Lumberjacks, ranking them 66th. They're 9-0 and appear to be running away with the Southland Conference regular season title, though that won't mean much if they can't win the conference tourney.